Major bell schedule change ahead for 2013-2014

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Originally Published: May 3, 2013; Updated: May 22, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 6.21.38 PMFollowing a divisive debate between faculty members over next year’s bell schedule, Townsend Harris will have all bands meet every day starting this fall.

On April 24, teachers voted on a proposal for a new bell schedule. The proposed schedule removed after school enrichment as a requirement for teachers, but retained Townsend Harris’s traditional schedule, allowing at least one band to drop out each day. With 28 teachers voting for the proposed schedule and 27 voting against it, the proposal failed to achieve the required level of support (55% of voters) and was turned down.  As the UFT did not hold a vote on another option, the school has reverted to the more traditional DOE schedule: all bands meet.

“The reality is there’s going to be no more enrichment built into the schedule. It’s going to be all bands meet, and to meet the accommodations of Queens College, it does force us to start later, at 8:20. Instead of ending at 2:40, we will end at 3,” explained Anthony Barbetta, principal. “If we didn’t do that, senior classes would block out three periods instead of two. We also hope that all labs will continue to meet zero band.”

United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter leader and English teacher Peter Wamsteker, who is responsible for bringing bell schedule options to a vote, said that the decision to propose a new schedule originated “mainly from teachers who were seeking to restore balance in the academic lives of their students and equity in the teaching schedule.”

This desire for a new schedule has much to do with school politics dating back before the current student body were members of the Townsend Harris community.

In 2009, former Principal Kenneth Bonamo indicated that major budget cuts would impact student activities.  The schedule currently in place at THHS came about at this time to deal with these budgetary threats and did so by making clubs and extracurriculars a mandatory part of teachers’ schedules.

Teachers held an “SBO” vote on that schedule, and it passed.

SBOs, school-based option votes, occur when teachers vote to modify anything specific to their school, including scheduling changes.  Annually, teachers can choose to propose and vote on a bell schedule that differs from the standard DOE model.

Some teachers voted for the ‘mandatory after school enrichment’ schedule in 2009, expecting that it would be a temporary schedule in response to an emergency situation.

“What started out as a one year good faith became a new norm, but for many people it wasn’t supposed to be the new paradigm,” said Social Studies teacher Franco Scardino.

Though many teachers grew to favor this schedule, a number of teachers consider it to be unfair.

A segment of the faculty believes that the current schedule is more favorable to some groups of teachers than to others.

According to English teacher Robert Babstock, “Some teachers stay very late and some have a more flexible schedule.”

Others maintain that the current schedule is unfair to teachers mainly because it ensures that they do not receive just compensation for clubs and extracurriculars.  A number of students report hearing from teachers that they are not compensated for their time at enrichment.

According to Mr. Barbetta, this is a “misconception.”

He said that under the current schedule, “The enrichment band is part of [teachers’] work day. It would be illegal to pay them because you can’t double dip. You can’t get paid for doing something during your school day.”

A teacher is contractually obligated to work a set amount of time.  In the current schedule, time spent in clubs and extracurriculars (two tenth band classes a week) is counted as part of the work day.

English teacher Joseph Canzoneri said, “There are teachers that [believe] even if it’s the same number of hours, it’s still another task, another activity. So it is more work.”

In other words, teachers who oppose the current schedule maintain that the burden of preparing for the enrichment bands unfairly adds to the overall workload of people who believe they are paid to spend their time teaching and preparing for regular lessons.  In their opinion, anything outside of regular teaching is extra and deserves pay.

“There’s nothing in the contract that says that teachers have to run clubs,” said Mr. Babstock.

Aliza Sherman, teacher of Social Studies, believes that the instructional day should be devoted purely to academics: “I think we have the responsibility to provide sufficient instructional time to achieve our objectives of covering the curriculum.”

Since the current schedule is a special program that needs to be voted on and reauthorized every year through an SBO, Mr. Wamsteker, as the  UFT representative, has the right to deem it unfit to be voted upon. Therefore, given that many teachers supported removing the current schedule because of its perceived unfairness and unsuitability, Mr. Wamsteker was able to ensure that it would not be reconsidered this year when negotiating a new schedule with Principal Barbetta.

Much of the controversy and division in the faculty stems from this decision to eliminate the possibility of voting on the current schedule.

Many of those in favor of retaining the current schedule thought that Mr. Wamsteker didn’t survey his members’ opinions enough. They claim that they were not adequately consulted about whether or not they preferred the current schedule or a new schedule.

THHSVOICES
Photography by Yash Sharma. Quotations collected by Vincent Chu, Evan Mancini, and Zach Ooi.

Robin Figelman, Dean and Physical Education teacher, said, “I think the original schedule was taken off as an option unfairly. It was taken off by one person.  There was no democratic process in how our schedule was removed as an option.”

Music teacher Peter Lustig described the meeting where teachers were consulted about getting rid of the current schedule, saying that it should have involved a more formal poll of the faculty’s opinion before the decision to vote on a new schedule was made final.

“They didn’t count up how many people were against the schedule,” he said, “so I think it was a little unfair. With 75 teachers, maybe 30-40 voted, and it was just people put up their hands and said ‘Alright, I’m against it.’ They didn’t count up how many votes for and how many against.  They didn’t have an actual written ballot.  They made no attempt to get the teachers who weren’t at that particular meeting to vote for it.”

The vote Mr. Lustig is referring to is not an official vote but a survey of teacher interest before a proper SBO vote.

According to the UFT rules for SBO votes, a show of hands is an adequate form of surveying interest from faculty before proposing changes–though a formal paper survey is “preferable.”

“I’ve heard people who I don’t agree with, but I see they have a point. They have a legitimate reason why they don’t like the current schedule, and we are divided. I wouldn’t say these people are wrong or anything like that, I just would have liked to see a better process,” added Mr. Lustig.

Many members of the faculty, who our reporting indicates were also against this process, declined to comment on the record for this article.

Ultimately, Mr. Wamsteker worked with Principal Barbetta to propose a schedule similar to the current one, but without mandatory after school enrichment.  This proposal lost, leading to the adoption of the DOE’s default: an all bands meet schedule. But few teachers have expressed their support for this schedule, which raises questions as to why so many would vote against the proposal and effectively ‘for’ all bands to meet.

Some teachers believe that those who voted against the proposed schedule did so in the hopes that the current schedule or other possibilities might be reconsidered.

“I think teachers voted no to this schedule because they thought that if the proposal got rejected, they could bring a dialogue back up again,” said Mr. Canzoneri. “But Mr. Wamsteker was very clear and he said that if you vote no, we’re going back to this default; the schedule we have right now is out.”

Ms. Figelman said, “I think that this [vote against the proposed schedule] was done out of spite…and I think that’s wrong. I think these teachers definitely need to look at Townsend Harris as the whole picture because Townsend Harris is different from other high schools and I think making it a 1 to 9 schedule makes Townsend Harris just like any other high school. I do not think all bands should meet next year.”

Information about the voting results spilled into classrooms the day after the vote, with numerous teachers sharing behind-the-scenes information with students during class time.

Misinformation spread quickly.  Prior to the official statement sent out by Mr. Barbetta numerous students had various misconceptions on the situation.

Before the email, Olivia Krakowski, freshman, said “I heard that we’re going to have school until 3:30 and no enrichment, which upset me because I know colleges look at that.”

Brenda Zhang, sophomore, also heard school will be extended to 3:30, and said she was told that “there will be cuts to the enrichment because teachers aren’t getting paid. Looks like we’re going to suffer for this.”

These different versions of events were already being discussed by students by the morning after the vote.

As for students fearing that clubs would be canceled, Mr. Barbetta was confident: “there will be clubs.” Other teachers pointed out there were clubs long before the current schedule was in place.

In addition to these misconceptions, in multiple class sessions, Mr. Wamsteker’s name came up as the sole source of these changes and quickly became the focus of many students’ frustrations, believing him to be the main teacher in favor of major changes to the current schedule.

This, however, offers another example of misinformation spread to students. While our reporting shows that Mr. Wamsteker is essential to the current events, he clearly has the help and support of a number of faculty members.

The frenzy of speculation resulted in a series of actions by the student body. Some took to Facebook to urge patience, while others made petitions.

Kellie Zestanakis, freshman, started a written petition. “We want to keep what we have now. We have around 300 signatures and support from some teachers.”

Freshmen Sherin Shibu and Nina Shimunov protested through the use of posters. “The level of reaction was really strong in our grade, so we wanted to show teachers what we thought about this,” said Sherin. “So, we put up posters. Nina came up with the all the slogans and printed about a quarter of them. They had to be taken down though.”

Facebook exploded following the official release of the new schedule after school on Friday, May 17.  The majority of opinions expressed anger and frustration, though some maintained that people were overreacting.

Sophomore Othria Ahmed’s mixture of resignation and displeasure summed up what many voiced: “I feel like I’ve come to terms with the fact that the decision for the new schedule was and is completely out of our hands, and there are just some aspects of the school system that protest can’t solve. With that said, I still feel very upset about the loss of our early Monday dismissal because not only was it a great way to start off the week, but it was one of Townsend’s features that made us stand out.”

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